Monday, December 24, 2012

Beware the Season

This is a rerun of a post I wrote around this time a few years ago. I think it's still relevant.


The men in black (MIB) entered UFO lore in 1956 in a book entitled They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers. The author was one Gray Barker who had been a member of one of the first American UFO groups, the rather ambitiously named International Flying Saucer Bureau (IFSB). Though Barker's book dealt with a number of paranormal topics, the largest part of it dealt with his former boss, IFSB founder Albert Bender.

In 1953 the IFSB was about two years old with a few hundred dues paying members (called "investigators") who all received the Bureau's newsletter Space Review. The group was doing well enough when, in October 1953, Bender suddenly stopped publication of Space Review, and dissolved the IFSB. The last issue of the news letter gave only this explanation.
STATEMENT OF IMPORTANCE: The mystery of the flying saucers is no longer a mystery. The source is already known, but any information about this is being withheld by order from a higher source. We would like to print the full story in Space Review, but because of the nature of the information we are very sorry that we have been advised in the negative.
According to Barker, the reason Bender had so abruptly ended the group was that three mysterious men in black had visited Bender and warned him off. But before they did, the MIBs were good enough to explain at least part of the true secret of the flying saucers. UFOs, they said, actually come from Antarctica. They have bases in both polar regions and regularly fly between them. Bender told a different story in his own book in 1963.

Enough UFO stories end with the craft departing due north or south that Barker's version of Bender's visitors has been adopted by conspiracy theorists who believe in a decidedly terrestrial origin for saucers. My personal favorite version is that saucers and MIBs are Atlanteans from within the hollow earth, but the theory that they are Nazi refugees from super-scientific bases beneath the ice cap has its devotees, too.

The MIBs are the key to the mystery. The most mundane explanation that has been offered is that they work for the American government and that they are trying to hide the truth about the extraterrestrial origin of UFOs. But that could itself be disinformation. No government has the ability to do what the MIBs do. Think for a moment about the men in black. They have appeared all over the world. They have a special interest in unidentified flying objects and in protecting the polar regions. They seem to actually know what is in the minds of the people they visit. Who has the ability to manage an intelligence network like that? Ask yourself: Who has the ability to travel everywhere, at any time, and even seemingly to appear in two places at once? Who has a special interest in protecting the polar regions? Who knows when you are sleeping? Who knows when you are awake? Who knows if you've been good or bad?

I think you know the answer.

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and be good for goodness sake.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Atlantis and the Mayan Apocalypse

It has been estimated, by those anonymous people who make passive voice estimates, that Friday will be the most annoying day ever on Facebook and Twitter. Friday, of course, is 12/21/12 (21/12/12 to our European friends), the Mayan apocalypse. Except it's not really, but we'll get to that in a moment. Friday is the end of the longest cycle of the very complex Mayan calendar. I'm sure you've heard about it. You're going to hear about it today and you'll hear a lot about over the next couple days. Gun control, fiscal cliffs, and Mayans will dominate the news until Saturday morning when the news cycle will switch over to last minute holiday shopping, dieting, party tips, and something some Kardashian was seen wearing. The news cycle is much shorter than even the shortest cycle on the Mayan calendar. Anyway, here's my contribution to the annoyingness.

Everyone is talking about the end of the Mayan calendar (which it's not), but not many are talking about the beginning. The Mayan calendar is made up of cycles within cycles overlapping other cycles. The equivalent in our Gregorian calendar is the cycle called months. This cycle has an irregular size of 28, 29, 30, or 31 days. Twelve months make up a year. Ten years make a decade, ten decades a century, ten centuries a millennium, and so on. While the days reset to one at the end of every month and the months reset to January at the end of each year, the years never reset to one; we simply add a new digit to the left-hand side of the year figure (e.g. year 99 became year 100, not year 0). Overlapping this set of cycles is the cycle of weeks. Seven days make a week, but neither months nor years sync up with an even number of weeks. The week cycle only matches up with the month/year cycle after fourteen years. That's how the Mayan calendar works with two exceptions. First, the Mayan system is much more complex than the Gregorian. Second, the Mayan has a largest cycle after which the whole thing resets. Anthropologists call that cycle "the Long Count" and it is 5125.366 years long. On Friday, the current Long Count will end. Friday night, the Mayans will have quiet celebrations of thanksgiving for the departure of the annoying American tourists.

The start date of the Mayan calendar was 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u. On the Gregorian calender, that day was Sunday, August 11, 3114 BCE. That was the day of the creation of the current world. To the Mayans and their successors, the Aztecs, the Long Counts were distinct creations. The Western equivalents were the Greco-Roman ages of mankind. According Hesiod, the Classical Greek, the ages were the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, the Heroic Age, and the present Iron Age. Ovid, the Roman, eliminated the heroic age. To Ovid, things had been going straight downhill since the beginning of time. If we wise moderns were to continue the pattern, the most recent periods would be the Industrial Age, Steampunk, Space Opera, Cyberpunk, and Reality Television. Or something like that. The Mayans, like Ovid, believed we are living in the fourth creation. The Aztecs, like Hesiod, believed we are in the fifth. We don't know a lot about how the Mayans perceived the previous creations. One interesting clue is that we have found inscriptions referring to dates before August 11, 3114 BCE. This would seem to imply that there is continuity between the creations, not complete destruction followed by a completely new creation. We'll find out if that interpretation is correct on Saturday.

The end date of the Mayan calendar is not the only date that has attracted the attention of Western fringe thinkers.

Otto Muck (1892-1956) was a German engineer. During World War II, he invented the schnorkel, which allowed U-boats to stay underwater for long periods of time, and worked on the V-2 rocket, which allowed them to bomb London and Amsterdam. Whatever we might think of the immediate uses to which those two inventions were put, we have to admit that they were the products of solid engineering; they worked. If that was all we knew about Muck, it would be easy to form an image of him as a sober, practical thinker not inclined to wild flights of fancy. In speaking of Hitler, Hermann Rauschning wrote, "In the depths of his subconscious every German has one foot in Atlantis." Muck was that kind of German.

The general stereotype of fringe writers is that they are bitter outsiders and sloppy thinkers. Quite often, that's true. However, there is another type of fringe writer. These people are usually well educated and successful in some field that requires strict intellectual discipline. Because of that success, they feel confident challenging the experts in fields unrelated to their own. For some reason, engineers are particularly vulnerable to this kind of hubris. Engineers figure prominently among the ranks of evolution and climate deniers.

Back to Muck's Atlantean foot. After the war, Muck wrote his own Atlantis book, Atlantis: Die Welt vor der Sintflut (Atlantis: The world before the Flood), which was published just before his death in 1956. Muck was that rare Atlantis writer, someone who added something new to the same old recycled stuff. Usually, the only novelty in each year's batch of new Atlantis books is if someone has found a new location for the island. Frankly, we're running out of places. Muck took his tips from the father of Atlanteology, Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901). He took Plato literally. In Muck’s book, Atlantis was a big island directly opposite Gibraltar, it housed a bronze age empire, and it sank in one day and one night. Donnelly believed that a near collision between the Earth and a planet-sized comet (an idea Immanuel Velikovsky later borrowed with barely a nod to Donnelly). Muck modified the comet into a direct hit by and asteroid. Muck's asteroid broke up over the Southeastern United States, peppering the Carolinas with thousands of small meteors that created tiny lake formations called the Carolina Bays. The main core of the asteroid plowed into the sea west of Atlantis puncturing the oceanic crust, deflating it like a leaky waterbed, causing Atlantis to sink beneath the waves. The usual catastrophes followed. Volcanoes erupted. Dark clouds blotted out the sun. Mammoths froze. Mile-high tidal waves and earthquakes destroyed civilization. Puzzled Sargasso eels wandered around, wondering what happened to their favorite rivers. Fire fell from the sky. Some guy in Iraq loaded his family and farm animals into a big boat and survived it all.

In a new touch, Muck explained that the sinking of Atlantis freed the Gulf Stream to warm Northwestern Europe, ending the Ice Age. This, he explained, was a vital piece in his reconstruction. Another original piece in his version was that most of the dust from the volcanic eruptions gathered over Northern Europe, lingering for 2000 years, cooling things so the Fennoscanian ice sheet didn't melt too fast (he isn’t clear why the much larger North American ice sheets didn’t melt too fast). Even though nothing except some hardy moss could grow under the dust cloud, tens of thousands of former Atlanteans followed the retreating, gradually growing paler in their gloomy, new homes.

Muck's method will be familiar to students of catastrophism and fringe history. He combs through geology and mythology, cherry-picking mysteries that need solving and evidence that might be interpreted to support his grand unified theory of the past. He ignores any suggestion that the mysteries or the evidence might not relate to the same time. He leans on hyperdiffusionism to explain similarities between human cultures. Just as you can't have catastophism without frozen mammoths, you can't have Atlantis without pyramids. Muck has both. This is where the Mayans enter the story.

Naturally, Muck has pictures comparing Mesopotamian and Mesoamerican step-pyramids. Naturally, he tries to relate the Mayan language to Basque. Naturally, he cherry picks Mayan mythology for any mention of a catastrophe in the distant past. However, this is another place where he manages to introduce something new into the Altlantean canon. Muck uses the Mayan calendar to date the sinking of Atlantis. First, Muck slices a thousand years off Plato's plain statement that Atlantis sank 9000 years before Solon heard the story in Egypt, to come up with a date of 8560 BCE. Next he crunches some numbers from the Mayan calendar to come up with a real starting date of June 8, 8498 BCE, which is close enough to Plato. Muck came up with his starting date for the Mayan calendar by rationalizing that, since the current age actually began on the last day of the previous Long Count, we must actually say their world began on the first day of that Long Count. According to the current best reading of the calendar, that would have been in 8239 BCE, not 8498. We should cut him some slack on this; we've made great strides in reading Mayan since he wrote. Channeling his best Bishop Ussher, he puts the catastrophe at 8:00 PM, Mayan time. As far as we know, the Mayans did not use Daylight Savings Time. This alone proves the superiority of their ancient wisdom.

Muck's book wasn't translated into English until the 1970s. By then, his geology was painfully out of date due to the plate tectonics revolution of the sixties. Since then his science has fallen even further out of date. According to his calculations, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere quadrupled in the catastrophe, (making things comfy after the ice age) and the ozone was almost completely eliminated (which let in just enough radiation to mutate the northern Atlanteans into white folk). According to computer simulations of the Chicxulub meteor (the dinosaur killer), Muck's impact wouldn't merely have ended a Bronze Age civilization, it would have exterminated most life on Earth. The geology of most Atlantis theories is just as ridiculous, but for some reason his book never really caught hold in the Atlantis community. After first editions of the English edition appeared in the major English speaking countries, it wasn't reprinted.

Even though his theory was nonsense, Muck deserves credit for one thing: he treated the Mayans with far more dignity and respect than earlier Atlantis writers. Most of his predecessors dismissed the modern Mayans as dumb savages who had nothing to do with Atlantis or the builders of the great Mayan ruins. If they had any part at all in the Atlantis story, it was as brutal invaders who destroyed the beautiful civilization bequeathed to America by the Atlanteans. Muck wrote nothing of the sort. To him, the American Indians were one and the same as the Atlanteans. It was they who brought civilization to Europe, displacing the inferior types who had been there before, and not the reverse. There is an echo of the "noble savage" romanticism of Karl May, whose adventure stories were popular in Muck's youth, rather than the vicious racism of the Third Reich of his mature years.

Here's to Mayans! They survived the sinking of Atlantis; they'll survive Friday.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Lost Islands and Pygmies of the Far North

NOTE: This post is a digression from another post I'm working on that got out of hand.

In 1569, Gerhard Mercator published the great world map that introduced his innovative map projection. Although he intended his projection as an aid to navigation, this particular map was not practical for that purpose. It was too large (1.24 x 2 meters), many parts of the oceans were covered by text boxes in Latin, and the instructions for using his method made up only small part of the text. The map, with its beautiful cartouche, colorful illustrations, interesting stories, and careful attention to the latest land discoveries, was better suited to be wall decoration or reference for educated patrons that as an aid for mariners.

Mercator's projection was wasn't the only innovation on the map. Mercator recognized the main limitation on his map. It was useless at the very highest latitudes. To reach the North Pole, the map would have had to be infinite in height. To also reach the South Pole, it had to be two infinities in height! Because making a sheet of paper that size was beyond the technology of his time, he came up with an elegant work-around. In the lower, left-hand corner of the map, he placed an inset with a polar view of the North down to 70°. This provided enough overlap with the main map that viewers could easily picture how the two maps fit together. Previous map projections of the world, such as the double cordiform projection that he and Oronce Fine had experimented with in the 1530's, had provided polar views, but this had not been their primary purpose. In dealing with a flaw in his new projection, Mercator unintentionally produced the first map devoted specifically to portraying one of the polar regions.

Detail of Mercator's 1569 world map showing the north polar regions. Source.

Mercator's 1538 double cordiform world map showing both polar regions. Source.

Mercator died in 1594 leaving his last great project, a six volume atlas and history of the world, unfinished. His only surviving son, Rumhold and the men of his workshop, which included three of his grandsons, gathered up his completed materials and published them as a third volume to accompany the two already published. These materials included twenty-eight maps and the first chapter of his history. One of those maps was an enlargement and update of his north polar projection. As with the 1569 map, the most distinctive feature of the map is four large islands where the Arctic Ocean should be. In the text on the map, Mercator explains that the waters of the oceans rush inward, between the islands, to the pole, where they plunge deep into the Earth. At the pole is a black island thirty-three leagues in circumference. A magnetic island lies just north of the Streto de Anian (Bering Straits). On one of the large islands is the legend: "Pygmae hic habitant 4 ad summum pedes longi, quaemadmodum illi quos in Gronlandia Screlingers vocant (Here live Pygmies, at most 4 feet tall, who are like those called Scraelings in Greenland)."

Mercator's 1595 map of the Arctic. Source. High-res version.

As strange as these islands look, they were not products of Mercator's imagination. He had a source. It's pretty remarkable that we know anything about the source. Mercator read the story in a now lost Fourteenth Century book, the Itinerarium of Jacobus Cnoyen. Cnoyen had two sources. He learned the main part of the story from an unnamed traveler who heard it from another unnamed traveler. The earlier unnamed traveler is supposed to have written the story in another now lost book, Inventio Fortunatae. Cnoyden's other source was--you guessed it-- another now lost book, the Gestae Arthuri. Mercator gave a brief explanation of these sources in a text box on the 1569 world map.

Meanwhile, in England, Dr. John Dee was looking for ways to expand the British Empire (a phrase he coined) over the entire Arctic. It was a bit of a hard sell. In 1553, a chartered company, the delightfully named Mystery, Company, and Fellowship of Merchant Adventurers for the Discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands, and Places Unknown, had sent three ships to open up a Northeast Passage around Russia and Siberia to the Indies. The captains and crews of two of the ships died in the cold and dark, while the third made to a Russian port and brought back a trade agreement from the court of Ivan the Terrible. The Russian trade was profitable enough that very few in places of influence were willing to finance additional expeditions to die in the cold and the dark on mere speculation. This wasn't enough to stop Dee who argued that British merchants should turn their attention to the Northwest. Dee argued that, not only was there a Northwest Passage waiting to be discovered, but that the British were entitled to own the passage and the lands around it through the right of prior discovery and occupation by expeditions in the time of King Arthur.

In 1577, Dee wrote to Mercator asking for more information about Cnoyen's account. Mercator copied an extensive part of Cnoyen's book and sent it to Dee. Unfortunately, that letter has since been lost. Fortunately, Dee copied the letter into one of his secret notebooks. Unfortunately, the notebook was damaged when an angry mob, believing Dee to be an evil enchanter, set fire to his house. I'm not making this up. Most of what we know about Cnoyen's Itinerarium and the anonymous Inventio Fortunatae come from Dee's damaged notebook. Mercator explained that, while he no longer had access to Cnoyen's book, he had copied the relevant parts and had translated them from "Belgic" into Dutch. He assured Dee that Cnoyen was a trustworthy source.

John Dee. Probably not a wizard. Source.

Cnoyen explained that in the far North there is a mountain range that completely surrounds the North Pole at about 78°. The mountains are penetrated by nineteen ocean channels with currents so strong that any ship entering the channels will be dragged north with no hope of escape. The nineteen channels combine to form four Indrawing Seas. One of the lands between the seas is fairly nice, two are completely uninhabited, and one has Pygmies. The province of Dusky Norway (Greenland) is attached to one of the Arctic islands by a narrow isthmus. West of Dusky Norway is the easternmost extension of Asia, the charmingly named Province of Darkness. Above these two provinces is a large island called Grocland which shields them from the Indrawing Seas. Some giants live on Grocland. The weather is misty and dull in the Far North, there are no trees, and the wind is too weak to turn a corn mill, let alone prevent ships from being pulled to their doom. Naturally, King Arthur thought this gloomy, barren land where the rivers sucked was just what he needed to add to his realm. In 530, he sent out armies and colonists and conquered the whole thing. This much comes from the lost Gestae Arthuri.

In 1364, eight people came to the court of the king of Norway from the islands. They were descendents of some settlers who had been sucked into the Indrawing Seas. Or maybe their fathers were from Belgium. Cnoyen was unclear on this point, to Dee's frustration. One of the eight was a priest carrying an astrolabe that he said he had received from an English Minorite (Franciscan) monk whom he met in the islands. This monk, he said, had spent years traveling the islands and making geographic observations with his astrolabe. The monk's description of the North confirmed that in the Gestae Arthuri and added details about the arrangement of the channels and islands. He had journeyed as close to the pole as possible. At the top of the world, the four Indrawing Seas come together and circle round before disappearing into the Earth beneath a black, magnetic island. The only people the monk met in his travels were a band of Pygmies, mostly women. The monk later wrote up his observations as a report for King Edward III of England. This is the Inventio Fortunatae.

The priest from who Cnoyen presumably heard the monk's story never laid eyes on the Inventio Fortunatae. Mercator doesn't make clear whether he heard the story from the priest or from additional middlemen. However, Cnoyen must have had independent knowledge of the report. If the priest met the English monk on his way back from the North, he wouldn't have written the report yet. And, Cnoyen mentions that the monk made five more voyages for Edward after writing the Inventio Fortunatae. We, too, have independent confirmation that the report existed. Both Martin Beheim's 1492 globe and Johannes Ruysch's 1507 world map mention using information from it and we three separate references to Columbus trying to locate a copy (he failed).

Detail from Johannes Ruysch's 1507 world map. Ruysch interpreted the nineteen channels and four lands differently than Mercator. He also ignored the Pygmies and populated two of the islands with legendary tribes out of Herodotus.Source. High-res version.

The popular impression that mapmakers of the time simply made things up to fill empty space on their maps is not true. The best mapmakers combed through all the sources at their disposal hunting for nuggets of information. Even the sea monsters were based on mariners' reports. The worst mapmakers copied the best. On Mercator's 1595 map, he based the Far North on Cnoyen's book. The north coast of European Russia he based on reports from the English merchants allowed in under the agreement with Ivan the Terrible. For Asia, he used Marco Polo and Pliny the Elder. Around Greenland he included information from Martin Frobisher's three voyages, one of the projects that Dee had been lobbying for when he wrote to Mercator. The large, nonexistent island of Frisland below Iceland and in the upper left-hand inset was based on a widely believed book about the voyages of a Venician family in the 1380s. The real crime of Renaissance mapmakers was, that they were so eager for information they ended up being credulous and uncritical. In the next century, additional information allowed cartographers the luxury of choosing between competing sources.

POSTSCRIPT: And what of the Arctic Pygmies? Pygmies, in Ancient and Medieval lore, were not merely small people; they were one of the monstrous races said to inhabit the far parts of the world. In the case of the Pygmies, "monstrous" was not a moral judgment. Pygmies were said to be brave and organized in their age old war with the cranes (the birds, not the construction equipment or the guy on "Hogan's Heroes").

On his map, Mercator said that the Pygmies of the Far North were like the Scraelings of Greenland. "Scraeling" is the word the Norse used for the various natives of the New World--mainland Indians, the Dorset people of the islands and the Eskimos who replaced the Dorsets in the early Second Millennium. Kristin Seaver writes that, although its exact etymology is obscure, the word Scraeling was almost certainly intended as a translation of Pygmy. The Norse believed that Greenland and the lands to the west were either part of Asia or islands near Asia. The geography of the time had pushed the Pygmies far into Asia. When they Norse met small people in, what they believed to be Asia, it made sense for them to believe they had discovered the homeland of the legendary Pygmies.

Olaus Magnus described the Pygmies of Greenland as small in stature but big of heart and able to kick butt many times their size. Source.

John Dee and Richard Hakluyt were certain that the traveling monk was one Nicholas of Lynne. There are records of a Nicholas of Lynn who was a mathematician active in the second half of the Fourteenth Century. At first glance, a mathematician would be a good match for a man who traveled the world making measurements with an astrolabe. What little is known of the biography of this Nicholas excludes him. He was probably too young, he was a Carmelite brother, not a Minorite, and there is no mention of him ever traveling, let alone spending years away on various missions for the king.

But there is another possibility. In Lynn at that time, there was also a Minorite house. Is it possible that there were two Nicholas' of Lynn? If there was a Minorite Nicholas of Lynn, what became of him? Cnoyen write that the monk went on five more missions for King Edward III, though he doesn't say what or where those missions. Perhaps Nicholas engaged in regular mission work among the little people he found near the pole. Perhaps he eventually stayed with them and taught them reindeer herding and toymaking...